Small businesses are rare in villages across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Often the village corporation store is the only place in town to shop. But in Eek, customers have another place to go for a sweet treat, a movie, or tobacco.
In the window of a white house in Eek, a neon sign flashes the word “Open.” Through the door thrums the driving beat of Queen’s 1977 hit “We Will Rock You.” Inside, Micah Heakin is pouring gallons of water into a slushie machine and rocking out. He’s been on a Queen music kick after watching the hit movie about the band, "Bohemian Rhapsody." “I’ve always been a Queen fan,” he says, turning down the music.
But he hasn’t been able to watch the film in a while. Heakin owns a DVD rental store in his hometown of Eek, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" has been a popular sell lately, which is unusual. It’s not what his customers typically go for.
“Horror movies rent the best, and then action movies are a close second,” he said. “Dramas aren’t as popular.”
As he’s talking, the door opens. A child darts in and leaves before it swings close, leaving a DVD case on the counter. When asked if that’s how returns are usually done, Heakin responds, “Yeah, I also have a drop box out here.”
The store is a single room, 16 by 12 feet, attached to Heakin’s house. He started renting movies in the late 1990s. At that time they were VHS and took up more space. Now, thousands of DVDs line the walls from floor to ceiling. Heakin’s store also sells tobacco products, candy, and slushies in more than a dozen flavors. Everyone has their favorite.
“My daughter’s is mango-strawberry, and my son likes to mix bubblegum with watermelon,” Heakin said.
Everyone in town knows his store. It’s the place I was told to go in the evening while in Eek. One day Heakin’s wife, who works at the Eek School, told him about watching kindergarteners draw maps of the village. “They’d have their house, the post office, the school, and Micah’s store,” he remembered, laughing.
That’s what people call the shop: “Micah’s Store.” Its official name is “Mo Heakin Video,” after Heakin’s nickname in college, but that name only seems to appear on offical documents and a small wooden sign hung in a corner of the shop.
Heakin runs his store for about five hours every evening after his full-time job managing the Eek Tribal Council Gaming Department. It makes for long days, but for Heakin, it’s a good way to spend an evening.
“Yeah, it’s more of a hobby,” he said. “Usually most years it’s break even. It doesn’t generate a lot of income, but I like doing it. It’s something to do.”
When asked why he thinks there aren’t more small businesses in rural Alaskan villages, he says: “The cost. I had to take out a loan to start everything up, so I’m not sure if a lot of people have access to loans and have credit. Like being able to buy the supplies and the Slush Puppy machine. That was the biggest hurdle.”
His advice to new business owners: “Just be patient with it. It’ll come. There’s certain parts of the year where it’s really slow.”
Heakin says that there’s room for more shops like his. Eek’s population is growing, and that means businesses can too.